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Workplace Grief

"Work As a Refuge"

A Study from 1988.

Preface to Readers

In the mid-1980s, when I began work on my Ph.D. in psychology, little research had been done about grief in the workplace. My own bereavement over Kristen and my work with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross had opened my eyes to the profound effects of loss, especially on parents like me, and especially when parents tried to resume working.

To pay my way through graduate school, I took a job with an outplacement agency working with executives who had recently been fired. It soon became clear that running aptitude tests and rewriting resumes were secondary to the deeper needs of these executives. They didn't just miss their jobs - they were grieving. Losing their positions and their relationships with colleagues had nearly paralyzed them emotionally and had to be dealt with before more practical problems came up about finding equivalent salaries.

Following that job, I began working with people who had lost a loved one and gone back to work - some too early, some at exactly the right time. I realized how powerfully grief in the workplace was affecting productivity in the business world. Today we know that American companies are paying $75 billion annually to cover the costs of hidden grief in the workplace, according to the Grief Recovery Institute (www.grief-recovery.com) . Employees mourn the death of 2.5 million loved ones every year, and the deeper losses - the kind that occur "when your heart is broken (and) your head doesn't work right," as the Institute's co-director has said, are difficult to measure.

I began my research on parents like me whose children had died suddenly and found recovery difficult in the few days of "bereavement leave" allowed them by employers. How they dreaded or looked forward to returning to their job, how their colleagues felt about supporting them (or not) and what their companies created as policy about employees in mourning all became the subject of my dissertation, "Work As a Refuge." This study was printed and bound but few copies exist today.

Since the study was written for an academic audience, you'll find some of the information a bit clinical, so you might want to skip to chapters with first names for titles (Howard, Barbara, etc.). These six case studies and the discoveries they opened up are still enlightening and, for many readers, profoundly relevant. I took many of the lessons learned here into the corporate world, where for 20 years I counseled groups of workers about trauma and death at such companies as United Airlines, Nordstroms, Chevron, First Interstate Bank, PG&E, Pacific Bell, America West Airlines, First Nationwide Bank and State of California Compensation Insurance Fund.

We may know a lot more about workplace grief than we did 20 years ago, but bewilderment on the part of colleagues and corporations - not to mention grief-stricken workers themselves - will continue in the workplace for some time. This study demonstrates how, with the right preparation, returning to work can become a positive experience for the bereaved.

Carol Kearns
San Francisco